Understanding bathtubs and climate change

October 31, 2008 at 4:57 pm | Posted in Climate understanding | Leave a comment
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Photo by Bombardier, Creative Commons.

Photo by Bombardier, Creative Commons.

It’s been common to blame the media and global-warming “deniers” for the public’s confusion about climate change.  

The media, it has been said, feel they must always represent opposite sides of opinion. It’s a laudable goal, but not if it results in a distorted picture of scientific consensus.

I.e. two “experts” presented as equals, one whose statements represent a position a hypothetical 90 percent of the scientific community would agree with, and another whose statements represent the thoughts of a spare 5 percent.   

In such cases, media efforts to produce balance lead to accidental misrepresentations. The “denialists,” on the other hand, are accused of deliberate distortions. 

A new article in the most recent issue of Science, however, suggests there may be more to blame for public confusion about climate change than inaccurate portrayals of scientific opinion. 

The article – “Risk Communication on Climate: Mental Models and Mass Balance” – links a failure to perceive the urgency of reducing carbon emissions to a poor understanding of stocks and flows.

Stocks and flows, as the author John D. Sterman points out, are all about the concept of accumulation, which is a common everyday experience:

“Our bathtubs accumulate the inflow of water through the faucet less the outflow through the drain, our bank accounts accumulate deposits less withdrawals … Yet, despite their ubiquity, research shows that people have difficulty relating into and out of a stock to the level of a stock …,” Sterman writes.

Sterman, along with colleague Booth Sweeney, tested a group of highly educated MIT students’ understanding of stocks and flows as it relates to climate change. 

To do so, they presented the students with a description of the relationship between greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and GHG concentrations in the atmosphere.  The students were then asked to outline the emissions path needed to stabilize GHG levels in the atmosphere. 

An astounding 84 percent, however, came up with emissions plans that would fail to stabilize GHG levels.  By controlling the flow of emissions, the students mistakenly thought they could have an immediate effect on the stock of atmospheric CO2. In reality, the effect of emissions reductions would take years to show up.

Sterman suggests it’s this kind of faulty reasoning that leads people to support a “wait and see” or “go slow” approach to emissions reductions.  Such an approach, he notes, is a mistake when dealing with a complex, dynamic system, such as the climate, where a cause can take quite some time to produce an effect.



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